Trips to Greece, Supa Heroes, Gambling Grannies and More Streaming Movies
The Trip to Greece
by George Wolf
“Exhausting? Me? You should meet you!”
Yes, the boys are at it for the fourth time on the big screen, enjoying exotic locales, savoring sumptuous cuisine, and critiquing the finer points of each other’s celebrity impressions.
Since taking The Trip around England ten years ago, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have also toured Italy (2014) and Spain (2017), reviewing restaurants and juggling their slightly fictionalized lives while director Michael Winterbottom documents it all.
This time out, they’ve also adopted more of an interest in history. They journey from Troy to Ithaca, following in the footsteps of the Odysseus, checking the tour book when they aren’t quizzing each other on historical timelines or Bee Gees tunes (Brydon’s bit with “Stayin Alive” is a scream).
The sarcasm is thick and the barbs sharp per usual, but while the overall hilarity level may be down a notch, this film boasts the most impressive vistas and enticing recipes of the entire series. Sure, it might be the quarantine talking, but less than an hour in I was ready to call either a travel agent or a Greek restaurant. Maybe both.
And in what might be a nod to the end of the franchise, the whiff of mortality pierces the air. Steve calls home often for updates on the health of his dad, and the levity of the “at our age” references carries an added layer of wistful resignation. You get the feeling these guys are finally giving up chasing youthful ghosts and embracing the time they have now.
These trips have always been about appreciating old friends, great food and often uproarious conversation. But while this isn’t the franchise high point, there’s a poignancy here in Greece, underneath Aristotle’s ashes and all the painful falsetto harmonies, that would make it the most satisfying finale.
Available to stream from Wexner Center for the Arts.
by George Wolf
At the risk of limb outing, I’m guessing a little film that might restore your faith in human decency would not be unwelcome right now.
Supa Modo may center on a young girl with a terminal illness, but it will warm your heart in the sweetest way, spinning its tale of escapist fantasy, cold reality and the simple joy of the movies.
Young Jo (Stycie Waweru, wonderful) spends most of her days under the care of a Kenyan hospital, dreaming of flying like her favorite film superheroes. But after a distressing visit with the medical staff, Jo’s mother Kathryn (Marrianne Nungo) decides her dying child should spend her remaining days in the comfort of home.
Jo’s sister Mwix (Nyawara Ndambia) encourages Jo’s superhero fantasies, and her neighbors unite to create situations where Jo can flash super powers and right wrongs in the village.
It’s a lovely “Make a Wish” scenario that is not uncommon, but director Likarion Wainaina and a team of writers deepen the humanity through simple contrast.
Kathryn does not support the indulgence of Jo’s imagination, clashing with Mwix and the villagers over what is best for her child. This push and pull keeps the film grounded when overt sentimentality offers a road more easily traveled.
And, naturally, good conflict makes a more satisfying resolution. Wainaina plays his hand skillfully, turning what could have been a lazy and cliched final shot into a moment full of the happiest tears.
by Hope Madden
It’s hard to watch Lucky Grandma without giving at least a passing thought to Lulu Wang’s 2019 gem The Farewell. This story could not be more different, honestly, but at the heart of both movies is the undeniable force of a nai nai.
In writer/director Sasie Sealy’s tale, Tsai Chin portrays Nai Nai Wong as a dead-eyed hoot. Cigarette dangling, disgusted expression, Nai Nai doesn’t play. Her dismissive stare is priceless. Her confrontational giggle even better.
One routine trip to see her fortune teller/doctor/friend (Yan Xi) convinces her that her luck is changing. She boards a bus, hits a casino and lets it roll.
But luck is not always what you hoped for and the next thing Nai Nai knows, some homely gangsters are after her.
What makes this film the savvy, funny adventure it is results from Sealy’s manipulation of the familiar. The basic story follows many an Underdog Runs Afoul of the Mob stories (Hard 8, Jackie Brown, Millions, True Romance, etc.).
The difference here, obviously, is the underdog.
Like the movie on the whole, the elderly and beloved old grandmother at the center of this mess is simultaneously familiar and alien. Her aches, pains, poverty and the clear patterns of her behaviors suggest something authentic and recognizable. She’s just not a movie grandma—not like any in the movies we’re used to. Her will is as strong as steel, whether her body keeps up or not.
Sealy’s careful not to mock Nai Nai Wong (a good thing, as she would clearly kick a person’s ass). But Chin makes certain this character is not only formidable, but hilarious.
She’s aided by her odd couple sidekick Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha), a gentle giant of a bodyguard hired in the savviest, old-ladiest of ways. (You know who can spot a bargain? Grandma can.)
Michael Tow also lends a fascinating, unseemly quality to his scenes as creepy gangster henchman Little Handsome.
The emotional grounding for the film never feels forced, which allows the Lucky Grandma to run its course without the predictable sentimentality that crushes most “look how funny this old person is” films. It’s there—the weighty pull of family over self-reliance, of dependence over loneliness—but, like everything else in the film, it respects the character Chin has so meticulously developed.
Available to stream from Gateway Film Center.
by Cat McAlpine
Lauren learns of her father’s untimely death from an aggressive reporter shoving a microphone in her face. There isn’t a lot of room for privacy when you’re a part of the Monroe family. Lauren is Manhattan’s District Attorney. Her brother, William, is running for congressional reelection. The Monroes are in the news and in the spotlight.
Unfortunately, the harsher the light, the darker the shadows. When her father’s will saddles her with a cruel inheritance and a bunker full of secrets, Lauren has to explore what she’s willing to do for the family name.
Simon Pegg has above and beyond the best performance here as the villainous Morgan Warner. It’s not just his excellent dialect work (as always) that helps him disappear into the role, but his commitment creating a full, if not deranged, character. The film’s weak script and loose plot points fail to support his choices, and often leave him out to dry, making Pegg cartoonish when he’s meant to be menacing.
Lily Collins falters as Lauren because she has so little to build on. The family dynamic itself is vague and cold. Brief flashbacks reveal a tumultuous relationship with her father, but little else is done to explore Lauren’s relationships. Lauren is grappling with how she chooses to remember her father, but he’s given no redeeming characteristics and frankly, neither is she.
The rest of the cast suffers a similar fate, with characters barely introduced, underdeveloped, and quickly discarded, resulting in stiff deliveries and people you simply don’t care about. That makes it hard to buy in to a story that hinges on putting it all on the line for family.
All said, this film lacks the commitment it needs to be memorable. In an effort, maybe, to keep mainstream, Inheritance only skims the horror/thriller genres instead of really getting its hands bloody. Penned by Matthew Kennedy (his first) Inheritance works too hard at the top, and gets the pacing all wrong. While it hits a much better tempo later on, director Vaughn Stein (Terminal) piles on with some impatient cuts that make the story feel rushed.
Too little too late comes a breakneck plot twist that attempts to definitively draw a line between the good guys and the bad guys. In the dark, there are only shades of gray, but Inheritance isn’t elegant enough to navigate them. The film’s tiptoeing around the darkest inclinations of the family patriarch rob the story of its real moral dilemma and its real fun.
There is definitely fun to be had in the final 20 minutes of the film. You just have to make it that far.
Available to stream from Gateway Film Center.
by Rachel Willis
When the men and women living on a military base in England ship off on their latest tour, the wives left at home need to find a way to pass the time until the tour of duty is completed.
Enter Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas). Struggling with her own recent tragedy, Kate decides to take on a bigger role in the choir activities that are primarily organized by Lisa (Sharon Horgan).
As a colonel’s wife, Kate’s participation is unusual, but it’s not important for us to understand these intricacies of life on the base. What writers Rachel Tunnard and Roselyn Flynn are interested in is the conflict between uptight Kate and laid-back Lisa.
The movie proceeds as you would expect. Though inspired by real events, director Peter Cattaneo doesn’t inject any originality into the formulaic script. I couldn’t help but think of A League of Their Own while watching the events of Military Wives unfold. It’s almost a beat for beat remake with choir substituted for baseball. However, where A League of Their Own managed to subvert expectations and round out its cast, Military Wives can’t compete.
It’s hard to keep track of everyone in the sizable cast. Not every character is given depth, most are one-dimensional. The story, however, isn’t concerned with fleshing out these women—they serve to add depth to the conflicts faced by the main characters and to enhance the setting. We see these women preparing to send their spouses off to war, little moments of goodbyes, of children and mothers trying to connect to their loved ones overseas, of women trying to pass the time until they’re reunited.
Still, it seems Kristen Scott Thomas will always be remarkable no matter how little she’s given to work with. The few emotional moments the film manages to mine are delivered through Thomas’ strong performance. Horgan doesn’t quite match up to Thomas, but Lisa is also the less interesting character.
Formulas are often reused because they work, and if you’re looking for a feel-good film, you won’t go wrong here. However, this is the kind of forgettable film that will fly under most people’s radar.
The Dalai Lama: Scientist
by Rachel Willis
People around the world generally know something about the 14th Dalai Lama. Whether you know him as a religious figure, political refugee, or something else entirely, director Dawn Gifford Engle wants to highlight another aspect of the Dalai Lama – scientist.
For over 30 years, the Dalai Lama has hosted talks with some of the world’s leading scientists. From George Greenstein (cosmologist) to Francisco Varela (biologist and neuroscientist) to Steven Chu (physicist), the Dalai Lama has opened discussions, facilitated new ways of thinking, and highlighted similarities between western science and Buddhist science.
From interviews with the Dalai Lama, we learn that had he not become the 14th Dalai Lama, he may have pursued a career in engineering. Many of those who speak with the Dalai Lama emphasize the fact that he has a “curious mind.”
Most, if not all, of these meetings with scientists were recorded, so Engle has a wealth of footage to use to tell this story.
Unfortunately, this is largely where the documentary falters. With all this footage, the film spends too much time trying to help the audience understand the basics of fields like cosmology, quantum physics and biology. Unless one is particularly keen to learn about these topics, the documentary becomes tedious. It fails in its primary purpose of underlining the ways in which the Dalai Lama has contributed his understanding to these subjects. Most of these scenes focus on the scientist of the moment, animating his words with simple graphics, while the Dalai Lama listens intently. Most of what is learned through these scenes is that His Holiness is a good listener (admittedly a good trait to possess).
The film is also guilty of meandering as it digs through thirty years of footage. Early on, there is a brief section explaining the war between Tibet and China that led to the Dalai Lama’s exile in India. Some beautiful animations appear in the first ten minutes of the film, showing some of the moments in the Dalai Lama’s young life that made him interested in the universe. Those animations are discarded too early – an unfortunate decision, as they are some of the most effective moments.
The film does remind us why the Dalai Lama is admired around the world. He is a champion of using science to improve the world for all conscious beings, he advocates scientific understanding for all (it is a requirement of monks in their monastic training), and he stands as a reminder that religion and science can go hand in hand.
These are a few of the lessons worth learning within this disjointed documentary.
by Rachel Willis
With a tense opening scene, Villain starts off strong. Unfortunately, it’s downhill from there.
When Eddie Frank (Craig Fairbrass) is released from prison after a long stay, he is determined to live life on the straight and narrow. It’s too bad “life won’t let” him. When Eddie discovers his brother, Sean, has run afoul of some of London’s most dangerous men, the brothers are left with few options.
There isn’t anything new in Villain, and “generic” is the word it brings to mind often. These are characters that you’ve seen before in situations you’ve seen before in a movie you’ve seen before. Writers Greg Hall and George Russo (who also portrays Sean) expect your preconceived notions about films like this to carry you through the movie. It doesn’t work.
That’s not to say there aren’t things to like about director Philip Barantini’s first feature length film. Barantini certainly knows how to create tension, and there are a few scenes that are difficult to watch.
The relationship between Eddie and Sean is winning because the chemistry between Fairbrass and Russo is evident. They play off each other like real brothers. Their bond, their fights, and their love for each other rings true.
Other characters don’t fare as well. When Franks tries to reunite with his daughter, Chloe (Izuka Hoyle), there are many head-scratching moments over her reactions. Her initial resentment of him too quickly gives way to feelings he hasn’t earned. Sean’s girlfriend, Rickie, could just as easily be a table from which he snorts coke. That’s not to say the actors aren’t doing their best, they’re just not blessed with particularly good material.
The tone of the film is all over the place, creating an overall messy feel. The family drama between the Franks and Chloe borders on the melodramatic, and the montage of the brothers remodeling their pub is odd and out-of-place. There’s a lot going on in the film, but there isn’t enough time devoted to each piece of the puzzle.
If you dig British thug dramas, there’s enough that works to make this enjoyable. But if you’re looking for a fresh take on the genre, you won’t find it here.